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U.S. firms fear Europe will snatch up foreign tech workers

EU proposal to fast-track immigration process for highly skilled Asians, Africans and Latin Americans is fueling calls for additional green cards and H-1B visas at home.

The European Union's new proposal aimed at fast-tracking the immigration process for workers in "highly skilled" is making some U.S. technology heavyweights nervous.

It's no secret that American tech firms prize vast quantities of H-1B temporary visas and permanent residency permits, otherwise known as green cards. The companies argue that these tools are necessary to bring in foreigners for positions they claim suffer from shortages of qualified Americans, particularly the foreign nationals who represent the majority of masters and Ph.D. graduates from U.S. universities in relevant technical fields.

Flag of the EU

Now they're concerned that unless Congress acts fast to increase the cap on those rapidly grabbed prizes, they'll soon lose out on foreign talent to EU countries.

The EU's proposal would provide a "fast-track" immigration program known as the "blue card"--a sort of green card competitor, offering card holders all EU social benefits--which will bring 20 million additional workers from Asia, Africa and Latin America over the next 20 years, according to various news reports. The plan's drafters hope to award workers the cards within one month to three months--a far cry from U.S. green cards, whose processing time averages 5 to 10 years.

"Europe has laid down a challenge to the United States Congress," Ralph Hellman, a lobbyist for the Information Technology Industry Council, said in a statement. "The EU will attract the best and brightest workers in the world if the United States continues to create new burdens to hiring these valuable workers."

ITI's members include Apple, Microsoft, Dell, Cisco Systems, IBM and Intel.

American tech companies may not have anything to get worked up yet, though. The EU has been considering such a move since 1999, and even now, the plan still must be ratified by all 27 member states, which would then set "quotas" based on their worker needs. It reportedly faces resistance from some major members, including the United Kingdom and Germany.

Meanwhile, proponents of increased U.S. visa quotas are also fuming this week over the U.S. Senate's approval of an amendment that increases by $3,500 the filing fees for employers seeking H-1B visas, which allow foreigners with at least a bachelor's degree in their area of specialty to work in the United States for up to six years. That bill must still be reconciled with a House of Representatives version, however, so that section may not survive in the end.

"Europe has sent a message. They are aggressively pursuing the professional talent they need to compete on the global stage," said Robert Hoffman, Oracle's vice president for governmental affairs and co-chairman of Compete America, a coalition of technology companies and pro-business groups. "The Senate has unfortunately also sent a message, and it doesn't bode well for the U.S. economy."